Thursday, August 25, 2016

Wherein I Take the @nntaleb IYI Test & Fail

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Herr Doktor Professor: stern master
I’m going to take the Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNT) test to determine if I am an IYI (“intellectual yet idiot”). Of course, right off the bat you can see I’m trying to play chess with Washington Square hustlers or a pick-up game with NBA studs—I’m out of my league here. I’m not an intellectual, I’m not an academic, and I don’t write for a living outside of legal briefs and memos. I’m just a practicing lawyer. But I do have an abiding interest in ideas. I’ve always been fascinated by how the world works, how it came to this point, and how we might tinker with it. I've enjoyed and believe that I've benefited from reading NNT's books (Bed of Procrustes excepted). But I must emphasize, unlike NNT, I’m an amateur, not a flâneur.

So with my disqualifications in place, let me go through the NNT test, line-by-line, to obtain my ranking. Taleb’s criteria are in plain type followed by my responses in italics.

What's IYI?

 Intellectual Yet Idiot:  [I just said, I’m not an intellectual. Whether I’m an idiot or not is open to further discussion. I imagine—nay, know—there are compelling arguments in the affirmative for this conclusion]

semi-erudite bureaucrat [I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the bureaucratic party. I’ve been either in a partnership or self-employed for about 30 years]

who thinks he is an erudite [I aspire to erudition, I do not claim it];

pathologizes others for doing things he doesn't understand not realizing it is his understanding that may be limited [Maybe, sometimes. Who hasn’t made this error?];

imparts normative ideas to others [Like NNT?]:

thinks people should act according to their best interests [A question of definition here: narrowly or broadly defined? And note “should”, not “do”]

*and* he knows their interests, particularly if they are uneducated "red necks" or English non-crisp-vowel class. [Well, to some extent, yes. I’ve had people pay me for my advice & opinions for over 30 years. On the other hand, I hope I have some sense of humility. Do you know this word, “humility”?]

More socially
subscribes to the New Yorker [Yes, I do. Are you suggesting Paris Match instead? In the New Yorker I skip the ads and focus more than I should on the cartoons; indeed, we have a whole book of New Yorker cartoons—quite fun. Is there a penalty for having a New Yorker book--or two?];

never curses on twitter [Although known on occasion to use profane, scatological, or crude language in person, I abjure it in public discourse. There’s already enough vulgarity out there—plus someone would always out do me.  I do, however, admit to excessive snark on Twitter. Perhaps there’s a New Year’s resolution in there]; 

speaks of "equality of races" and "economic equality" but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver [We’ll I’ve lived and hung with people of different races, and I’m in favor of a greater degree of economic equality than what we currently experience. I grew up middle-class in a small Iowa town where rich kids (by local standards) pretty much had to mingle in school with poorer ones because there was only one school and too few of us to avoid some mingling. As to drinking with a cab driver, no; but with my fellow road construction workers? Oh, yeah. It was, you may say, satisfactory]; 

has considered voting for Tony Blair [N/A. I’m not a Brit! But I did vote for Bill Clinton 2x & will for HRC (see below)];

has attended more than 1 TEDx talks and watched more than 2 TED talks [Never been to a TED Talk, but I’ve watched more than two. I rather like them on the whole. I’ve also watched NNT on YouTube at festivals (presumably not literary and not in the UK). How does that score? BTW, some of my favorite peeps have given a TED Talk]; 

will vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable [Deferred to the finale];

has The Black Swan on his shelves [I have two copies: one hardcover in storage & one on my Kindle. Do I get extra credit?]

but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence [It’s a catchy slogan but I have to bone up to determine if the converse is also true: absence of evidence may be evidence of absence. In which case, how do we distinguish the two instances? I will say this from my humble perch as a practicing attorney: try convincing a judge or a jury that X exists when you have no evidence (an absence of evidence) that X exists—a case not to take on a contingent fee. If I find no evidence of tigers in my yard (sightings, paw prints, scats, animal carcasses, etc.), then it's highly likely—although not certain—that there are no tigers in my yard. Despite appropriate and convincing examples in The Black Swan, NNT tries to skate too far with this slogan];

is member of a club to get traveling privileges [no, just credit card miles; no clubs. I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member!];

if social scientist uses statistics without knowing how they are derived [Not a social scientist. I’m respectful but wary of statistics, suspicious that they may conceal lies and damned lies];

when in the UK goes to literary festivals [I’ve never been to a literary festival in the UK, but when in India I go to the Jaipur Literature Festival. How did you like your sojourn there, NNT?];

drinks red wine with steak (never white) [Usually red, but then I’m from the Midwest and care more about the steak anyway];

used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed [True--after learning about Art DeVany in NNT’s Fooled By Randomness (read in 2007), and then on to Gary Taubes, Mark Sisson and other others of their ilk];

takes statins because his doctor told him so [No, not necessary. Good cholesterol profile because of good fats; see the previous answer];

fails to understand ergodicity and when explained forgets about it soon later [Got me! I’ll check it on Wikipedia later. Allowed?];

doesn't use Yiddish words [Only a schmuck wouldn’t!];

studies grammar before speaking a language [no, my wife—an ESL teacher—wouldn’t let me be so foolish. Besides I need to eat and use the restroom];

has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen [Really? Come on, are all your readers from the UK? I don’t have a Queen];

has never read Frederic Dard [Who? Okay, you got me. But have you read Hammett, Chandler, McDonald, Elmore, Greenleaf—you know, authors that others read? Okay, the last name was a plug for my cousin],

Michael Oakeshott [no, on my list to read, but you’ve read Collingwood & rate him ahead of Oakeshott, correct?],

 John Gray [short pieces only],

or Joseph De Maistre [read about him in the autumn of 1975 in Shklar’s After Utopia & he didn’t seem worth my time; on review, he still doesn’t. Time better spent on Burke. Yes, I know, but Burke is Anglo-Irish and writes in English]; 

has never gotten drunk with Russians and went breaking glasses [Guilty, but I don’t feel guilty];

doesn't know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba [Not off the top of my head, no]; 

doesn't know that there is no difference between "pseudointellectual" and "intellectual" [I’m not sure, but you’ll tell me]; 

has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past 5 years [No, I don’t understand it, although from what I know, it is intriguing];

knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation [I follow GW (for non-Americans, George Washington) do attempt to maintain a good reputation. I don’t buy the Trumpian notion that any publicity is good publicity.]

But a much easier marker: doesn't deadlift. [I do, but not as often as I should. Do you get credit for kettlebell swings and standing presses? Pavel would give me credit]

The IYI, Taleb adds, look down at the great unwashed Plebes who haven't read Foucault in college [Mme neither, I’m too old, he wasn’t a big deal then]

and treat them like crap - as if they were inferior forms of life incapable of directing their own affairs. [Nope, I don’t truck with that attitude].

But when you make them feel uncultured, lacking in intellect, and unlearned, like all bureaucrao-journalists, being all tawk, they get very queasy: hit them where it hurts.

They are arrogant down, they will be arrogantified from up.

Speaking of arrogance, back to my deferred answer about “will vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable.” A few words:

NNT is using—what is to his mind—guilt by association. Perhaps it’s my attorney-mind or perhaps my wishful thinking that reason can ultimately trump [irony] innuendo, but I have to call “baloney!” on this. (I concede demerits here for not swearing.) Maybe NNT has a good argument about Monsanto and GMOs. As a matter of personality and pragmatics, I give a lot of credence to the precautionary principle. But a lot of those who’ve given these issues serious thought disagree with NNT about the safety of GMOs. I don’t claim to have a definitive answer. Nor does Hillary Clinton, I suspect. (Neither on her campaign website nor in an issues Wikipedia entry could I find anything about GMOs.)  The meme NNT wants to draw upon is that HRC is an insider and therefore in cahoots with multi-national corporations who want to mess with our food while lining their pockets. (Can I get credit for “cahoots” as exotic, albeit not Yiddish?)  Well, okay, the part about the corporations is probably true, but it assumes a naïve understanding of what a person—even a president—knows or can do about any particular issue, especially one not likely to affect the outcome of an election.

The other point is that I support Hillary Clinton for president. I don’t do so because she’s “electable”, I do so because she is the best choice for my vote, and has been since the beginning of the primary season. An unusually large number of people want to kvetch (award Yiddish use points please) about the candidates this year, and if it makes them feel better, go ahead. As Clay Shirky has so persuasively explained, in the end, one of two persons will be elected the next president. One is an experienced prototypical politician with insider experience and credentials—thank goodness! (Non-swearing demerit acknowledged.)  The other is a demagogue. Each election tests a voter’s political intelligence and savvy in deciding whom to vote for or (if politically active), whom to support. But this year it isn’t just a test of political judgment, it’s a test of character and of fundamental issues of political morality. To suggest otherwise is reprehensible.


And if supporting Hillary Clinton means I fail the test, then screw the test! (Can I get half-credit for this last phrase, Herr Doktor Professor?)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Anniversary, America

Today we mark the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We’ll enjoy picnics and parades, burgers and dogs, and cap the day by watching towering fireworks displays. All well and good. But it should also serve—as no other national holiday does—as a time to take stock and reflect on our nation.

I say “anniversary” rather than “birthday” because while our nation can be said to have been conceived—or perhaps given birth—in 1776, it didn’t achieve nationhood until the adoption of the Constitution and the inauguration of George Washington, the convening of the First Congress, and the seating of the Supreme Court. These institutions of government, which formed the character of our nation as a polity, created these United States of America. (We would the become The United States of America until we passed through the crucible of the Civil War).  Now is a crucial time to reflect on the status of this project.

Today we have a carbuncle on the surface of our body politic. Large, red, and ugly, we hope that it may go away with limited treatment and minimal interference to our politics and life as usual. But this is a Pollyannaish view because the carbuncle—or perhaps “bubo” is a better metaphor—represents an underlying systemic infection that threatens the whole of the body politic. Continued vigilance and treatment are imperative.

But this is a holiday, and my personal habit is to reflect on some work of American history or political thought. To this end, I’ll continue my way through The Federalist, the collective effort of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.

Some see this document as a mere antiquary of 18th-century political thought, but it remains a vital and penetrating work of political thought and government design. The insights and warnings found in The Federalist remain pertinent today. I’ll leave with one small thought from Federalist No. 1:

[A] dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.
(Hamilton)


Spend a little time this holiday pondering these words. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Intelligence, Judgment, Peter Thiel, Rene Girard, and Donald Trump

Image result for images Peter thiel
Peter Thiel
A confluence of reading selections recently brought the name of Peter Thiel to my attention. First, I read an article that Thiel wrote for National Review in 2011 that Patrick Ophuls cites in his book Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. In that article, Thiel argues that science and technological progress are stalling and need government support, among other things. Although I read the article twice, I didn’t find it compelling.

Thiel's name had also been in the news of late because he revealed that he had financed the prosecution of the case against Gawker for an invasion of privacy claim by the former professional wrestler “Hulk Hogan” over a sex tape of Hogan that Gawker had published. The jury awarded a significant, debilitating judgment against Gawker. Some speculate that Thiel financed the case out of revenge because Gawker publicly revealed that Thiel was gay, although Thiel had already come out to friends and acquaintances. None of this is especially noteworthy, given that I have little interest in scandal rags or the sex lives of strangers (or friends or relatives, for that matter). I'm very little sympathy for Gawker, and I haven’t given much thought to the implications of the suit that some claim about it. But the confluence of references made me look into Peter Thiel. It turns out the Peter Thiel was a student of René Girard at Stanford, and he has declared himself very much of a student of Girard's mimetic theory of desire (which I’ll explain more about later in this essay).

I also wondered about Thiel's politics because he published in The National Review, the flagship journal of American conservatism founded by William F. Buckley. I learned that Thiel is a libertarian. He’s been actively funding anti-government Republicans over a number of elections in generous amounts. I also discovered that Peter Thiel is a delegate to the Republican national convention on behalf of Donald Trump.

The final piece of the puzzle that intrigues me about Peter Thiel is the fact that he is, at least by some measures, very intelligent. At an early age, he was a ranked chess master. He did his undergraduate work at Stanford (where he took a class from Rene Girard), and then he went on to Stanford Law school. He worked at a prestigious law firm, and he held a judicial clerkship, with an opportunity to have gone on to a Supreme Court clerkship. Detouring from a legal career, he got into the entrepreneurship business and helped found PayPal, invested very early in Facebook, and he became a billionaire.

So how can a person who—by common standards—is very smart, very successful, very libertarian, and a student of René Girard's mimetic theory, become a Donald Trump supporter?

Now my supposition—I'm not alone in this—is that Donald Trump is a prototypical demagogue. * (N. B. I do not consider him a fascist because I don’t believe he meets all of the criteria for fascism, and quibbling here can be important in trying to understand what he represents.)  Trump is a proponent of nativism, racism, and xenophobia, mixed with a policy potpourri that makes any classification based on a traditional right-left continuum impossible. Also, Trump is the most ill-suited—by temperament, character, and experience—person to be president of almost anyone imaginable. Given this (and you can leave the essay here if you disagree—no sense wasting your time), then how do we understand Peter Thiel and those like him? (Sanders supporters who would shift to Trump, perhaps as high as 20% by some estimates, are another whole crazy group to ponder.)

My questions arising from all of this:

What does it mean to be smart? Can a person be described as “smart” if he designs algorithms, plays at a world-class level of chess, reads complex texts, and supports a blatant demagogue? And in Thiel’s case, even when you are presumably sophisticated concerning political philosophy and the legal system? (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt based on his educational credentials.) Thiel's case seems a compelling piece of evidence for Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. Thiel’s case suggests that smarts are domain specific.

In a profile by George Packer published by The NewYorker in November 2011 about Thiel, one gets a sense that Thiel, despite—or because of—his high IQ, is ill at ease with the world outside of Silicon Valley geniuses. Thiel has been immensely successful in many of his ventures. But at the time of the article, he was talking about walking away from politics because it was too complicated and difficult to work with. To someone who'd made billions of dollars in the tech industry working with other techies and hanging out with them, I can understand how politics would be far too messy and frustrating. But some people are very smart (in the abstract thinking sort of way), who also have a grasp of the political process and the complex needs and thoughts of a variety of different groups of people.  These individuals can become successful politicians because they easily relate to others and understand intuitively that humans are inherently “groupish” (as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt terms it). They appreciate that the requirements of human life make morality and politics necessary for human flourishing, and this requires recognition of the needs and perspectives of a wide variety of groups.  In tangent with our political system, we have economic and business systems, but these too depend on human cooperation (even if coerced or bribed). But in democratic politics, individuals start from legal equality, while in the economic realm, we recognize and legitimate inequality (masters and servants). Perhaps the distinction between these two realms frustrates Thiel and his cohort.

How does Thiel’s level of intelligence affect his judgment? Packer notes that Thiel and his friends at a dinner party seem alienated from the rest of society and locked in almost childish concerns and enthusiasms. Many persons suffer real problems in navigating the to-and-fro of political maneuvering and negotiations. We must distinguish abstract intelligence from the emotional and social skills that mark maturity of judgment. Someone may be a genius in math, science, or tech but not at all well-suited for intense involvement in human social and political life. Mr. Thiel may be one of those persons. (I’m reminded of LBJ’s comment about the group of whiz-kids that JFK brought into his administration: “I wish that just one of them had run for sheriff sometime.”)

Do Peter Thiel and other Republicans believe that if Donald Trump is elected president, they can control and shape his agenda towards their hyper-free-market, minimalist government, low tax agenda? This agenda is not what drew voters to Trump in the Republican primaries. If anything, Republican primary results showed that the Republican orthodoxy preached by all of those other candidates fell flat with most voters. Tax cuts for the rich, cuts in government services, cuts in transfer payments, and other such staples of the current Republican diet were rejected in favor of aggressive limitations on immigration, trade war, xenophobia and racism, tough talk (even beyond the Republican norm), and a grab bag of economic ideas presented with no defining coherence.

One has to be quite circumspect in the use of historical analogies, remembering they are analogies, not analogs or repetitions. But German conservatives in 1933 thought that they could install Hitler in office and then control him. They couldn't. They didn't. You know what happened next. Now I am not equating Donald Trump with Hitler; the trope is misapplied and unpersuasive. However, people who think that politician will govern drastically differently from what the candidate says during a campaign to gain power—at least in American political history—is usually going to be surprised. Politicians do things, for the most part, to please the people who helped them gain power.  Any individual or group that believes that they can control Donald Trump seems almost certainly wrong. Ego and vanity alone mitigate against this ever happening. And given that Trump seems to have little sense of how to build political coalitions or how to build a party, not to mention his lack of any coherent policy agenda, the ability to control him will be much more daunting than it would be a typical politician.

Regarding Thiel and Rene Girard, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire holds that humans come to desire the same things. Girard is a native of France, but he came to the U.S. for graduate school and remained here the rest of his life. Girard first developed his theory of mimetic desire through reading 19th-century novels, but he expanded the scope of his search and wrote about Shakespeare, classical Greek and other myths, and the Bible. Indeed, Girard came to the conclusion that Christianity broke with the long human practice of using scapegoating to reduce the social conflict created by mimetic desire. In other words, when individuals desire the same objects, conflicts ensue. Over time, social tensions grow.  At that point, society looks for a scapegoat and uses the scapegoat to discharge the built-up tension of the conflicts. Girard writes that with the sacrifice of Christ, who is an innocent who chose the scapegoat role for himself in order to negate the validity of the scapegoating dynamic. Girard receives serious consideration from many thinkers, including Garry Wills, Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston, and British philosopher Roger Scruton, among others. Girard’s project digs very deeply into the human condition, and his project is intriguing and provocative. But what I want to emphasize here is his theory of scapegoating. Donald Trump, as with almost any demagogue, uses scapegoating, or blaming The Other, as a major focus of his appeal. The Mexicans, the immigrants, the Chinese, the Moslems—his grab bag seems to be almost endless—all are blamed by Trump for perceived ills. So the question arises, what would René Girard think about Trump? Girard died in 2015, so we can’t ask him directly, but I wonder if student Peter Thiel has wrestled with the Donald Trump phenomena in light of his Girard’s work. I have only an elementary knowledge of Girard’s works, but I can't help but believe that Girard would see through the Trump phenomenon to the scapegoating upon which it relies.

I don't know Mr. Thiel. He may be a swell guy. Some of the things I’ve read about him recently lead me to think highly of him, but some other of his attributes—his support of Trump perhaps foremost—make me wonder how his mind functions, or doesn’t, as the case may be. It wouldn't matter so much except that he is a major player in Silicon Valley, a billionaire, and someone who is willing to work very hard to promote—and perhaps even impose—his vision upon society. He has every right to do that. But because he has so much money, he holds immense power, and he therefore merits scrutiny. He seems to lack the check of judgment, made all the more dangerous by his obvious (and perhaps overweening) intelligence.

Finally, related to judgment, is the question of character. The test of character this election cycle applies to everyone on the political right, Republicans, and Libertarians. Will they support Donald Trump despite all that we know about him and his manifest unfitness for office and the threat he presents to our Republic? This issue will separate the sheep from the goats.

A part of any rounded intelligence is sound judgment in human affairs. I mean solid, working judgment about people that is essential to moral and political life. We are political animals, and to the extent that we fail to use—or lack through no fault of our own—sound, reasonable judgment, we suffer the consequences, and those consequences won’t be good.

*On this topic, among conservatives who hold a similar view, check out George Will, Brett Stephens (Wall Street Journal), David Brooks (New York Times), Ross Douthat (New York Times), Robert Kagan, Max Boot—I’ll stop here. I could go on at some length.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Flash Points: The Emerging Crisis in Europe by George Friedman

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Published in 2015

George Friedman's Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe (2015) provides a brief but cogent history of Europe from (at least what used to be called) The Age of Exploration up to the present. Friedman presents the history as a background for an assessment of current affairs in Europe. This is not just an homage to the idea of history, but instead it provides the necessary foundations to understand contemporary Europe.

The Portuguese, followed by the Spanish, initiated the exploration of the world of the Atlantic Ocean on around to the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific as a result of the monopoly on spice trade held by Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The existence of the Ottoman Empire as a major Muslim civilization pressing (once again) on Europe bears no small resemblance to the problems that Europe faces today. Today, the Muslim world of North Africa and the Levant are not unified as they once were under the Ottomans; instead, they're very disunited. But the resulting social and economic dysfunction are pressing Muslin migrants toward a relatively under-populated but relatively affluent Europe. The conflicts between Christian Europe and neighboring Islam began shortly after the establishment of the Muslim tradition in the 700s, and these conflicts continue today.

In addition to identifying the ongoing the Christian-Muslim conflict along the borders of Europe, Friedman notes the development in early modern Europe of commercial adventures, scientific and military knowledge, capitalism, nationalism, and (later) industrialism, that allowed Europe to dominate the modern world. At its apex in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British Empire included areas around the globe, followed by the French and other European ventures. What Europeans didn't control directly, they greatly influenced. But as Friedman notes, all of this was thrown out the window beginning in 1914 with the horrible destruction of the First World War. The immense destruction of this war was followed by an interregnum of 20 years of relative peace only to break out again in the conflagration of the Second World War that ended in 1945. By 1945, Europe was exhausted. Into that scene stepped the U.S. and the Soviet Union to impose peace and bilateral division of the continent. By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, Europe had arrived at the point where believed it could establish a perpetual peace through the integration of nations that eventually became the European Union.

Friedman provides a much more in-depth history than I have summarized here, but it is a speedy one that only obliquely references some deeper issues. Friedman reveals that he was originally a student of political philosophy, specifically of New Left movements in Europe in the 1960s and 1970sand the political philosophy of the Frankfurt School. I sense that Friedman knows it deal about the intellectual history of Europe, which he only hints at, and which he ignores in his emphasis on geopolitical relations.

After this brief history lesson, Friedman focuses on the problems of contemporary Europe. These are not new problems. He identifies them as often long-standing problems that arise from the fact that Europe is an amalgamation of borderlands that create flashpoints of conflict. Those borders include those between Christians and Muslims; between Romans (and their Romance language-speaking successors) and Germans; between peninsular Europeans and mainland (Russian) Europeans, and so on. Each part of Europe exhibits its own problems of borders. Friedman makes a point of including the Balkans and the Caucasus mountain region as a part of Europe, although the major European nations often want to ignore them. Of course, the Balkans were the tender that set off the explosion of the First World War, so contemporary Europeans ignore this area at their own peril.

Friedman's analysis focuses on the geopolitical and economic needs of each of these regions of Europe. His analysis is knowledgeable cogent. His ability to take the long view of these complex makes it especially worthwhile

My only serious criticism of Friedman's analysis is his disinterest in political systems and ideologies. I also have this criticism of the work of Robert Kaplan, who worked with Friedman at STRATFOR, an international political analysis and forecasting venture. Certainly national leaders, and those who need to understand their decision-making, ignore geopolitical realities at their peril. For instance, U.S. decision-makers often ignored geopolitical motivations when trying to assess the intentions of the Soviet leaders in the period immediately after WWII.  There should be a balance. George Kennan was correct in his contention that certain geopolitical and historical realities that influenced Soviet behavior were carried forward from the Russian Empire. However, neither can ideology and political systems be ignored. To this end, Philip Bobbitt's work, The Shield of Achilles, provides an exemplary counterbalance. Bobbitt recognizes that changes in strategic dynamics entail changes in constitutional regimes. Friedman (and Kaplan) gloss over this important factor in nation-state decision-making, and thereby limit the effectiveness of their analysis. Indeed, with the rise of extreme ideologies in Europe (and in the U.S.), we are experiencing competing ideologies and political systems at play in the foreground. Political systems and ideologies never don’t negate geopolitical realities, but they do add a complexity into the mix that Friedman ignores. This surprises me because of Friedman's background in political philosophy. It's not the regimes necessarily adopt a political philosophy outright—even Marxist regimes never fully went down that path—but they do have an influence that is overlooked in this work.


My criticisms notwithstanding, I came away from this book with a much deeper understanding of European conflicts and attitudes that have been around for a long time and that are likely to create tensions and problems in Europe in the immediate future. Indeed, with the possibility of Britain exiting the EU, with right-wing regimes arising in Hungary and Poland, with renewed Russian aggressiveness, and with a growing tide of Muslim immigration, Europe is likely to be in for a tumultuous period. Friedman is a knowledgeable guide for helping anyone interested in attempting to comprehend this puzzle called Europe.






Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ezra Klein, Robert Reich, and Theda Skocpol

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein, founder of Vox.com & now podcaster
Ezra Klein of vox.com has launched a podcast featuring interviews a variety of guests, and I've listened to two interviews so far, Robert Reich and Theda Skocpol. I recommend both, and based on these samples, others will likely prove worth listening to. And since these two interviews proved informative and provocative, they merit some comments.

Robert Reich: progressive, Sanders supporter, Clinton knower
Robert Reich served as Secretary of Labor during Bill Clinton's first administration. For this, he is perhaps best known. During the podcast, I learned that he went on a date with Hillary Clinton (she at Wellesley, him at Dartmouth), he worked for Robert Bork (Yale Law connection), and he was friends with John Kenneth Galbraith. Each point merits some further consideration. As for Galbraith, he was very tall, while Reich is very short. (I can personally attest to this as he campaigned in Iowa City for Bill Bradley in 2000, speaking at fellow lawyer Jim Larew's office. When Reich arrived, I could only tell by the slight commotion. He was hard to see. But, what he lacks in physical stature, he makes up in intelligence and general panache.) As to Bork, he liked Bork personally, but he disagreed with him about politics and antitrust. (He worked for Bork at the DOJ on antitrust issues.) And finally, despite what seems to have been a pleasant introduction to Hillary and a later friendship with Bill, Reich has endorsed Bernie Sanders. What gives?

Die-hard anti-Clinton folks or HRC conspiracy types will be disappointed. He shares not anti-Clinton animus.Instead, he believes that Sanders represents a movement that can transform American politics, and Reich argues, our politics needs some serious transformation. Here's where his thoughts become thought provoking and bear some discussion.

I agree with Reich that the growing inequality in society and the distorting role that big money plays in our politics are of primary concern. Both of us want to remedy this situation. He argues that Sanders represents change, while HRC represents the best management of the status quo. (By the way, he labels Hillary "a thousand times better" than any Republican alternative.) He argues that like Obama before her, HRC would work within the system and make more marginal changes. He believes that Sanders can bring about much more.

I disagree. He cites, for example, FDR as a role model. But FDR, who brought about a major realignment of American politics, did not do so as the head of a movement, but as a cautious, calculating, and canny politician. FDR would throw bones as to the right, such as austerity and balanced-budget nonsense (that extended the Depression as a consequence) while he crafted significant changes in our laws and political landscape. Lincoln, too, was a cautious, calculating, and canny politician who, like Roosevelt, was careful not to get too far ahead of this electorate or the Congress. (Consider Spielberg's film about Lincoln and the 13th Amendment, as well as Emancipation, as examples of this.) As Garry Wills argues, prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or other activists, get out ahead on issues, politicians follow behind and put things in order. We need both. As head of a cause or movement, Sanders has hit upon a nerve, showing a base for progressive change (as Trump has discovered a base for a nativist populism). The energy and spirit of the Sanders movement are vital and could crucial to progressive success, but a movement alone can't get things done. Sanders, as a governing politician, would prove wonderful on the ideas and speeches, but weak on getting legislation enacted. (Sanders displays shortcomings on the realities of getting legislation passed, and progressives like Paul Krugman have had to call him out on this.) The president is the person who must work with Congress to get real results. Congress, by its very nature, makes sausage; it's not gourmet, but it feeds people. Sanders offers fillet minion, but Congress couldn't serve fillet minion in a million years. It didn't' during the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, or at any other time. (They do, some of them, seeming willing to try to serve pie-in-the-sky, but let's pass on that.)

Reich makes as good a case for Sanders as can be made and does so without any anti-Clinton animus, but it falls short, as does the Sanders candidacy.

Theda SkocpolTheda Skocpol, whom Klein also interviewed (separate podcast), is a respected political scientist at Harvard. Her insights, from political science as a discipline to the Tea Party to right-wing American politics in general, are insightful. But one thing I take from her and from many other sources is key. While Donald Trump is a joke with the potential for a disaster, the people who have voted for him have valid concerns. Not well expressed or understood (thus their susceptibility to Trump's demagoguery), but real. Elites and political parties this group at our peril and to the peril of our Constitutional system.

Ezra Klein did a good job with both interviews, and I look forward to more of them.




Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Andrew Sullivan Takes on Trump the Demagogue

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Ross Douthat starts the conversation
Ross Douthat's recent blog entry commented on a piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine about Donald Trump. Douthat's piece was interesting; Sullivan's article essential. 




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Andrew Sullivan: a medium for Plato
Sullivan, for those not acquainted with him, is an emigre from the UK to the US who's been in the thick of American political discourse since the early 1980s. He served a stint as editor of The New Republic, and he became a prolific blogger at The Atlantic, The Dish, and then on his own website, until he decided to hang it up 2015. He considers himself a conservative, but he supported Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012, and he was an early and influential supporter of gay marriage from a time when it seemed unthinkable. Among other attributes, Sullivan is gay, Roman Catholic, a Harvard Ph.D. in government, and a student of Michael Oakeshott, the mid-20th-century British philosopher. Sullivan has been known to change is mind about some subjects, such as the Iraq War and Republicans for president. Having recently joined the staff of New York Magazine, he has written perhaps the most singularly impressive article on Trump and Trump's movement that I've come across. While I'll provide some excerpts and commentary below, I urge you to read it in full (here). 


Shall I compare thee to . . . ? Hmm, could be, doc. I see some likeness.
The place to start is Sullivan's conclusion: 


For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.
But while I start my consideration of Sullivan at the end, Sullivan starts his analysis at the beginning--with Plato. Plato experienced the Greek democratic polis and as a result of his acquaintance with democracy, he wrote The Republic, which includes a scorching critique of democracy. Sullivan summarizes and quotes Plato's portrait of a demagogue: 


He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess—“too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

Does this remind you of anyone? Sullivan echoes Plato's complaint that democracy can develop--tends to develop--an inordinate trend toward equality that jettisons authority and leaves elites bereft of power. (I think that Sullivan could have mined the Federalist Papers for similar insights, but he notes that they'd read their Plato, so I quibble.) 

Sullivan recognizes that elites can abuse their power, and he accuses American elites of having done so. He writes: 


An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.
While I think that Sullivan overestimates the importance of "massive and increasing public debt" (Obama has reduced it significantly and of itself it's not a pressing economic issue), his underlying point remains valid: American elites have let down a segment of the population; in particular, white, working class males. Sullivan and I realize that for many, sympathy with white males in our society hardly seems warranted, but for a significant segment of them, it is. Sullivan does an excellent job of discussing what's happening to this group--the core of the Trump constituency--and how they have arrived at a place where Trump's demagoguery became attractive to them. 

Sullivan draws on the work of Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here and Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (1951) to reveal the psychology and motivations behind mass movements. These references work to great effect. Sullivan also contends that Trump's movement has "fascist elements" but doesn't qualify as true fascism, at least yet. I agree with his assessment. Trump, at least for now, is more Berlusconi than Mussolini, but we can't be complacent. I appreciate Sullivan's careful parsing of terms such as "fascism" because such parsing is essential to meaningful analysis and dialogue. 

Yet, Sullivan also knows how to craft an insightful observation:


Tyrants, like mob bosses, know the value of a smile: Precisely because of the fear he’s already generated, you desperately want to believe in his new warmth. It’s part of the good-cop-bad-cop routine that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
It's Putinism more than fascism or Berlusconi-like antics that I fear from Trump. 


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Putin & Berlusconi: Trump role models? 


Finally, I can't resist this insight from Plato that Sullivan channels: 


[L]ike all tyrants, he [Trump] is utterly lacking in self-control. Sleeping a handful of hours a night, impulsively tweeting in the early hours, improvising madly on subjects he knows nothing about, Trump rants and raves as he surfs an entirely reactive media landscape. Once again, Plato had his temperament down: A tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life ... is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.” Sound familiar? Trump is as mercurial and as unpredictable and as emotional as the daily Twitter stream. And we are contemplating giving him access to the nuclear codes.
Sullivan has written an exceptionally perceptive and persuasive piece, and I join him in urging everyone concerned with the well-being of our Republic to take heed of his warning. This is no longer an issue of party victory or a time to gloat over the collapse of any semblance of respectability in the GOP. It's more serious than that. Much more serious.